Too big, too small or just right? Judging everything from baby bumps to maternity wardrobes has become yet another way to scrutinise women, but should pregnancy ever be up for public discussion?
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Words: Alix Walker, Photos: Getty Images
I can see the gropers coming a mile off. It’s the eagerness shining from their eyes; the same eyes which are focused roughly 20 inches below my own. No, not there. My stomach. I’m seven months pregnant and for the last four months my face has been altogether uninteresting, but my stomach? Well it’s like a fat little genie that people want to rub, stare at and assess. I’ve never been much of a fan of having my body groped by strangers so I’ve become very adept at backing away, like a wide-load reversing truck.
It’s during these moonwalking moments that I spare a thought for Kate Middleton who, as I write, may or may not be experiencing her first pangs of contractions. Paparazzi are camped outside the private Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington where she is due to give birth to the third in line to the throne.
Understandably the world is excited to know if she’ll be producing a prince or princess. But we’ve taken it so much further than that. From the second she announced her pregnancy in December (well, since she said “I do”) everything from her maternity wardrobe to whether she’s threatening her unborn child by playing the notoriously deadly game of hockey, to how she positions her hands on her bump and even specifics on how she will give birth is chronicled daily by the media. But nothing’s had quite as much attention as the size of her bump. “It’s too small”; “She’s putting herself at risk by not eating enough”; “Kate has the perfect bump”; “She looks sexier than ever during pregnancy”. Her body has or hasn’t responded in exactly the right way to pregnancy depending on which camp you sit in.
I am ridiculously, stupidly excited to meet my baby. I’m also incredibly grateful to be pregnant and was even when I woke up at 3am every morning to throw up and my ankles disappeared into my feet like two overstuffed sausages. And I think it’s lovely when people are interested and concerned and thrilled for me. But I had no idea that the second I declared myself pregnant I also declared myself fair game for my body, my diet, my lifestyle and my choices to be scrutinised every day. And let’s face it, I’m no Kate Middleton. But baby scrutiny is not a trend that’s exclusive to princesses or public figures; it’s now got to the point where any pregnant woman is considered public property and every woman I spoke to had their own experience of it.
Out in the open
The fetishisation of pregnancy is a relatively new phenomenon. One hundred years ago the words ‘pregnant’ and ‘expecting’ were never uttered in mixed company (as late as the Fifties ‘PG’ was the code-name of choice for a pregnant woman) and a pregnant woman was expected, quite literally, to go into hiding, only leaving the house for light exercise after dark in case she terrified people with her growing body. Male doctors assisted in labour but women were often asked to lie on their left sides with their knees bent up so the doctor and patient couldn’t see each other. Men were, by and large, completely oblivious to a pregnant woman’s ‘condition’ and pregnancy was very much hidden by society. Even our mothers dressed in giant smocks to cover their swollen stomachs, giant pussy bow necklines diverting attention from their stomachs, leaving work at 26 weeks lest their male colleagues be reminded of their pregnancy. The idea that a stranger would enquire whether they were giving birth by C-section, whether they’d do bottle or breast and how their stretch marks were coming along was unthinkable. Then, in August 1991, Demi Moore posed naked on the cover of Vanity Fair, shot by Annie Leibovitz, declaring herself pregnant and proud and shattering a thousand taboos about female sexuality and procreation and making the private very much public.
This emancipation of pregnant women continued to gain momentum when The Spice Girls and All Saints proudly displayed their growing stomachs in crop tops in the mid-Nineties, and by 1998 TV presenters like Fiona Bruce appeared on our screens at eight months pregnant. But in the last few years we’ve taken a darker turn and ended up in a place where a pregnant woman is now to be ogled, judged, criticised and praised by society at large for others’ titillation. ‘Bump Watch’ is now part of everyday vernacular. Bump stories on the Mail Online guarantee hits as we pore over a woman’s changing body. A post birth weight-loss story can sell thousands of extra copies of a magazine. Kim Kardashian provided a poster girl for how not to be pregnant in 2013 (“too fat” according to bump watchers), Giselle, on the other hand, got full marks (just right).
The majority of this scrutiny is directed, rather depressingly, at a pregnant woman’s changing shape. Basic etiquette is forgotten. You are either congratulated that you’re gaining weight in the ‘right way’, some choice comments dished out to Stylist colleagues include: “Oh you look good for a pregnant woman – lots of women get that fat neck, but you haven’t yet.” And, “You can hardly tell you’re pregnant from behind” (“Stop looking at me from behind!”). Or you’re rudely reminded that your body is getting bigger. “I can tell you’re having a girl because your face has gone all fat”; “You. Are. MASSIVE.”; “You’re quite large, you’ll probably have to have a caesarean.” And my personal favourite: “I was 10 weeks pregnant so hadn’t told anyone when a colleague stopped me and said, ‘I’ve noticed you’ve got a bit chunkier lately. A couple of us have been talking and we’re all a bit suspicious…’”
Of course, basic biology dictates that when a small human being begins to grow inside our stomachs that those stomachs will grow too. But how big should it grow and should our legs, faces and arms also swell? That’s become something it’s appropriate to comment on. And it’s all too easy to fall foul of this bizarre pregnancy weight-gain game. I’ve felt flattered and strangely proud when told that I have a small bump, like I’m playing the game well. That was until two women told me that they too enjoyed the small bump affirmations, until they found out that their babies weren’t growing properly and had to be delivered prematurely, something no amount of pasta could change. You see, size does indeed matter when pregnancy is concerned, only this time, bigger is most often better. Easy to forget when you’re under the glare of the pregnancy watchers who demand a neat bump.
Mr Anthony Boret, consultant obstetrician at Spire Bushey Hospital says: “I have noticed women are now more concerned about weight gain in pregnancy and are asking doctors more about it. It’s normal to gain up to 30lbs or more. It’s a physiological response to pregnancy and women should remember a baby is totally dependent on its mothers diet – if you don’t eat enough you won’t give enough nutrients to the baby. It’s a shame society doesn’t accept women’s bodies for what they are.”
Fat or thin, another important consideration for society is whether you are providing the perfect vessel to carry this unborn child. It’s hard enough keeping up with the government’s changing recommendations on what you should and shouldn’t eat without your colleagues, family or the woman on the number 19 bus becoming gatekeepers of your diet and alcohol consumption. I’ve been told I’m a ‘cowboy’ for eating prawns while pregnant and glared at when I ordered a prosecco at a restaurant.
“I had one beer when I was pregnant with my first son and a woman said ‘Look at the state of her – isn’t it illegal to drink while you’re like that’. I felt like a bad mother before he was even born,” a colleague told me. Stylist’s celebrity editor faced similar judgment: “My female gym instructor took a strong objection to me using the treadmill – even though my doctor had told me it was safe to do so as I ran regularly before my pregnancy.”
There’s also very personal questioning. One friend who is also seven months pregnant has been asked: “Was it planned?” “How old are you?” “When will you get married then?“ “When will you go back to work?“ And, “How long were you trying?” by complete strangers. The office can be particularly rife with scrutiny. People openly ask me how long I’ll be taking for maternity leave and have passed judgment on my desire to come back to work (“You’ll change your mind once you meet your baby”). Someone actually kissed a colleague’s stomach at an office party, another was kindly informed, “That’s your career down the pan,” when she announced she was pregnant at 27.
No sooner has the bump scrutiny finished, the post baby body analysis begins. “I’ve been amazed at how much my body has been scrutinised,” one Stylist reader admitted. “People actually scan you up and down (mostly men I find) and say something inappropriate like, ‘Wow, where did the baby weight go?’ Unless you’re a good friend I don’t care what your opinion of my body shape is. And more importantly STOP LOOKING!”
“The pressure to lose your baby weight quickly is huge and that is undoubtedly due to ‘yummy mummy’ culture and celebrity mums not only exercising throughout but then stepping out with their ‘perfect’ bodies a few weeks after giving birth,” says psychologist Emma Kenny. “Women feel pressure to conform to pictures of the likes of Jessica Alba, and losing weight straight after having a baby is now almost expected. But it is such a negative way of thinking and it is essential we start being realistic as opposed to aspirationally irrational with our image.”
The other side
The scrutiny by no means stops when you don’t have a bump. The second you reach a certain age or a certain stage in your relationship, people turn into mini detectives and suddenly the most personal of choices become akin to a public soap opera.
“Got something to tell us?” one guest asked a friend on her wedding day when her groom innocently posed for a picture with a hand on her stomach. “You’ll be knocked up by Christmas,” said another, posthoneymoon. When my friend replied that oh no, she wouldn’t, they insisted that oh yes, she very much would be, like they were partaking in some form of twisted, gynaecological pantomime.
“You’ve lost weight. You have you know. Quite a bit,” another 35-year-old woman I know was told in alarmed tones by her in-laws on holiday as they scanned her bikini body for a sign of a grandchild. (This was followed up with the suggestion that people who don’t have children have “absolutely nothing to look forward to”. And a deflated “oh” when they were told of a long-haul holiday in November as they mentally totted up she’d still be able to fly and not flat on her back in stirrups.)
Childless women in relationships or in a certain age bracket often have their movements tracked by colleagues and acquaintances for hidden signs. Don’t want a glass of wine? Ordered a green tea instead? Cue the winking and nudging and hypothesising and body scanning, when all that’s happening is that you’re feeling a bit fat and are doing a juice detox. Refused a sashimi canape? Ohhhhhh. Uh-huh. That’ll be it. Even a couple of doctor’s appointments in a row for a new inhaler and some antihistamines and everyone assumes you’re about to whip out a Baby On Board badge.
“As a childless woman of 38 in a stable relationship, I’m endlessly being scrutinised,” a Stylist reader told me. “I ordered foie gras at a restaurant the other day, and my friend went, ‘Oh OK’ and gave me a nod as if acknowledging the answer to a question she’d been waiting for. She herself is an independent, successful, single woman – not the type of person you’d expect that comment from. But then I guess we all do it to each other. We’re all guilty of it on some level.”
“Society’s perception is if you get married or are in a long-term relationship and a certain age, the next step is children and with that comes pressure to conform,” psychologist Kenny explains. “This is because pregnancy is often seen as a reflection of success, particularly in the ‘have it all’ generation and because women crave female support, especially in such a life-changing thing like pregnancy. If you’re in the non-baby club, women will also stick together to support each other against society’s judgment and because when one has children and the other doesn’t it can often divide friendships as life priorities and lifestyles change.”
But while the constant “is she, isn’t she” might be frustrating for those who either don’t want or aren’t ready for children, it can be painfully insensitive for those women who might desperately want to be pregnant but aren’t for a variety of complex and sensitive reasons. In my circle alone I have a friend who is putting off a much wanted baby because her relationship has hit a rocky patch, another who just can’t afford it yet, another who is on anti-depressants and has been advised to come off them before she starts trying but is scared to, many more who simply haven’t met the right person, and plenty for whom nature and their body are making it harder than they thought. The answer to “When are you having a baby?” is rarely simple enough to warrant the increasingly casual way it’s thrown around.
“After trying to get pregnant naturally for two years I’m now on my second course of IVF,” a friend tells me. “The cocktail of hormones is bad enough but when you add the avoiding alcohol and dodging the constant questions from well-meaning in-laws and colleagues while I’m just trying to get on with my job, it’s downright exhausting. I often want to go into hiding”.
The done thing
Society’s obsession with the bump – and lack of the bump – proves the taboo of pregnancy is behind us. But it’s also highlighting the maintained traditional belief that women should always choose to be mothers. Pregnancy is being dissected and commentated on to such an extreme that far from being celebratory, it risks setting it as an expectation. “My boss recently told me that my maternity leave has been factored into next year’s budget, just in case,” reveals one professional woman in her mid-30s from London. “As if it’s not even a possibility that I won’t”.
Pregnancy is an amazing thing and it’s amazing that we, as a society, are finally embracing it. I am very happy society no longer expects me to stay locked indoors until my baby arrives. And it’s amazing that we can share our experiences with other women, I appreciate every piece of advice I’ve been given and love hearing other women’s stories. But there’s a fine line between interest and scrutiny. And I don’t think it’s OK for anyone but Kate Middleton’s doctor to comment on whether her bump is the right size or tell my friend she should freeze her eggs because she’s 34. After all, women’s bodies are their own. Whether we’re pregnant, trying to get pregnant, not yet pregnant or never intend to be pregnant, our bodies and our choices deserve a little more privacy and respect from here on in.